I am not a ‘Trekkie’.
Sure, I’ve written about buying a Trek robe, customized a set of bridge crew Legos, know a few words in Klingon, quote several ‘Rules of Acquisition’, and get just about every Trek reference made on Big Bang , but that doesn’t mean I’m a Trekkie. I mean, I can only name about a dozen episodes by title, and they made 79 of them…
…hmmm. I guess this is what denial feels like. Oh well. So be it.
Next May, Paramount will release the sequel to Star Trek, which will be either ST2 or ST12 depending on how you count. Being the ‘not a trekkie’ that I am, I figured that I would watch one Star Trek movie a month leading up to the big release. Since I plan on watching them in order, I should be taking the rebooted Trek disc out of the Blu-ray player right before I sneak off to a midnight showing of its sequel.
I love it when a plan comes together.
It all starts with Star Trek: The Motion Picture. If you’re a Trek fan, then you probably know something of how the film came to be. If not, here you go.
Star Trek ran for three seasons on NBC before it was cancelled in 1969. It was subsequently sold into syndication where it did really well. So well that Paramount, who produced the show, tried several times to make a Star Trek move in the mid-70’s. I say ‘tried’ when I really mean ‘commissioned a bunch of scripts that they hated’. By 1977, Paramount had given up on a film, and began developing a Trek spin-off (Star Trek: Phase II) to anchor their new television network. It was an idea before its time. Star Trek: Voyager wouldn’t debut on the newly minted UPN until 1995.
Paramount ultimately scrapped their plans for a new series, as well as UPN (for the time being), and went back to making a movie. They adapted the pilot for Phase II into a screenplay, reused the sets, rushed the production and Viola!; Star Trek: The Motion Picture hit the big screen December of 1979.
And last week, I watched it again for the first time in almost thirty years.
Was it worth the wait?
Unfortunately, I have to say ‘No’.
I remember liking ST:TMP when it came out, but I don’t remember loving it. I had hoped that time would have changed my perspective. That with age came wisdom. That viewing the film as an adult who’s learned to appreciate nuance and subtlety would open my eyes to everything that I missed in 1979.
Nope. Didn’t work. Despite the pedigree of the director, Rober Wise, Jerry Goldsmith’s soaring score, and state of the art special effects (circa 1979), I still can’t love the film.
For starters, it’s kinda boring.
Since I like Star Trek, I’ve been trying to find a way NOT to say that out loud, but I can’t ignore reality. It is a long, slow crawl toward a very underwhelming resolution. There’s no drama, no tension, no action. They put a woman on the bridge who’s supposedly a walking pheromone and Kirk didn’t even nail her. WTF?
I wanted spectacle. I wanted grandeur. I wanted cosmic scope and action out the butt. This was a space movie released in 1979. You know, right after Star Wars. Give me an exploding Death Star, dammit!
But that’s not what we got. Instead, they gave us a hastily (they compressed the film’s schedule to make a release date) revised TV pilot that was, to some extent, a revised version of 'The Changeling', an episode from the original series. On the show, a long lost, deep space probe returns to Earth destroying everything in its path in search of its creator. In the movie, a long lost, deep space probe returns to earth, destroying everything in its path in search of its creator. All other similarities, I assume, are accidental. Perhaps I’m being a touch unfair. They did mix it up a bit. On the show, the lost probe was a giant spark plug on a string. In the movie, the villain is a cloud.
Yes. I said 'cloud'.
Ask the makers of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer as well as Green Lantern how well evil clouds work on film. Short answer: they don’t. There’s nothing to play off of. No one to root against. No one to monologue. As Spock might say, “Its motives are ‘nebulous’.”
‘Oh no, here comes the cloud! RUN!’
‘Um…not sure. We’ll get rained on. Maybe hail.’
I could totally see this as a TV pilot. Which is problematic since this is a movie.
In deciding to make a movie out of a TV pilot, Paramount sold themselves short. There was very little theatricity (not a word) to the whole endeavor. V’Ger might have worked on TV where expectations and budgets are lower, but it fails miserable on the big screen. It has no 'wow' factor. Character development is non-existent because you can go back and fill in the blanks as the series plays out. And being a pilot certainly goes a long way toward explaining the final scene of the movie, the one where Kirk commands Sulu to go ‘Out There’. Um, Jim, I’m pretty sure your mission was ‘Stop the Cloud’. Is Star Fleet really going to let you drive off with the Enterprise? Oh, that gets explained in next week’s episode. Got it.
And then there's my other issue with the film. It isn’t very TOS ‘Trek’.
The old show had a very tried and true formula. You had Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Kirk was the bold, young captain with Spock and McCoy acting like angel Kirk and devil Kirk sitting on his shoulders, except it was logical Kirk and emotional Kirk, but you get the picture. There would be a bad guy, there’d be some debate and then Kirk would pull a rabbit out of his hat and save his 400 some-odd crewmen and his ship.
Great premise and as long as they didn’t cut Spock’s brain out of his head, it worked.
The movie has almost none of that.
Spock and Kirk aren’t Spock and Kirk. Kirk weasels his way back into command which is all kinds of wrong. Kirk is a captain first and foremost and forever. He wouldn’t play politics to win back his ship, he’d have taken it back in a duel, or a poker game, or by sleeping with some Admiral’s wife. Having him force his way back on the ship seemed kind of ‘pussified’.
But at least he doesn’t cry. Poor Spock.
Spock’s always been kind of aloof. He's a Vulcan. That's their schtick. But watching Nimoy phone in his performance was a major buzzkill. He just wasn’t there. In fact he and Kirk come off as Kirk and Spock from a ‘Mirror, Mirror’ pansy-verse. Kirk does very little Kirk-ing, and Spock…oh man….Spock cries. And he wasn’t even breathing ‘Side of Paradise’ spores. What the hell? A tear rolling down his cheek? Is this one of those 'Don't Litter' commercials? There’s no crying on Vulcan! Jesus, Spock, sack up!
And the rest of the film is pretty much more of the same. A lot of blah. Scotty comes out of it okay, but Uhura, Sulu and Chekov are pretty much set dressing. Thankfully, McCoy is still McCoy, especially rocking the full beard, open shirt and groovy ‘Peace and Long Life’ medallion. Unfortunately he’s ill-used. Instead of Kirk, Spock and Bones hashing out what’s going down, Spock pouts, Kirk fuddles and Bones shows up every now and again to look around the bridge like he’s searching for his keys.
I mentioned Death Stars, right? That final battle in Star Wars was great, wasn’t it? Did Trek step up? Nope. There wasn’t even a fight scene. Surely they could have had Kirk and Decker slap each other around a bit before Spock laid them both out with a couple of well placed neck-pinches. They had a reason to. Kirk basically stole the ship out from under Decker AFTER Kirk recommended him for the command. But did they? Nope. They didn’t even yell at one another. Just scowled and went their separate ways.
Oh yeah, spoiler alert. I should probably mention at this point that I’m assuming you’ve seen the movie.
So who was Decker? He’s the guy Kirk chose to replace him in the big chair. He oversaw the complete rebuild of the Enterprise. He’s about the only character you relate to because you’ve never seen him before so you don’t have any pre-conceived idea as to how he should act. He was going to be ‘Number One’ on the new show. He could have been a contender.
I think his was supposed to be a love story. But it never developed and he died, so never mind.
Wait a minute….Number One? It took a while, but I eventually realized why the movie didn’t feel very Trek-like. The addition of an Executive Office. The new command dynamic. Chekov’s little desk off to the side of the set. The catchy new theme music. This wasn’t TOS Trek. It was proto-Next Generation. The bastards were trying to turn Kirk into Picard.
At this point, it certainly sounds like I hated the movie. I didn't. Not all of it, at least. I absolutely loved the new Enterprise, even though I couldn't stand the scene where they do the big reveal. Kirk and Scotty could have walked from Earth to dry dock in less time. But the new ship...wow. They caught lightning in a bottle there, my friends. The new Enterprise retained the odd tube and stick look from the show, but all sexed up. That ship looked like she could tear around the galaxy, then turn around and tear you a new one. The closest they’ve come to matching the grace of the Enterprise/ Enterprise-A is the Enterprise-E, and that’s 8 or 9 films away.
One last thought before I give my rating. Trek has always found a way to allegorize ‘Big Ideas’ with varying degrees of success. ST:TMP was a miss. It takes a little digging to get to it, and you have to sift through so much chaff that you almost miss the wheat. Wanna know what it is?
Let ME allegorize for a moment.
In college, I read a short story about a bunch of people who go poking around Heaven, looking for God. When they find Him, they ask Him about the meaning of life. His answer, and I'm paraphrasing heavily here: I only meant that you not be satisfied with nothing. That's it. God wanted us to find meaning and purpose in our lives, not sit around the Garden of Eden with our thumbs up our butt.
In other words...humanity NEEDS to boldy go where no man has gone before. We have to explore strange new worlds. We must seek out new life and new civilizations. That’s what we humans do. V’ger had gone to the end of the universe, learned everything it could then returned to its creator and asked ‘What’s next?’ It needed a new direction, a new purpose. It needed...to evolve.
That’s the point of the movie. The freaking preamble to the show.
I wish it hadn’t taken me 30 years to figure that out. I might have liked the movie more.
The film get’s two and a half photons out of five, and one of those is reserved solely for the redesigned Enterprise. It’s not for casual fans. They’re not going to take the time to figure out what the movie was shooting for, nor should they. Trekkies such as myself will try like crazy to make it out to be a better film than it was, but even we will have to face the music and fess up. The movie missed its targets so badly that it ended up being something of a letdown.
Live long and prosper. Peace and long life.
PS- feel free to leave a comment. I’d love to know what others think.